Spotlight On: Fred Williamson
For years Fred Williamson was known for his action on the gridiron. As a player for the Oakland Raiders and later the Kansas City Chiefs, this hard hitting player even won a Super Bowl ring during his days as a football star. Strangely enough, football was not his destined career path as Williamson was bitten by the acting bug. With an incredible screen presence, rugged good looks, and a legitimate tough guy aura, it did not take him long to find success in Hollywood. The man known as “Hammer” found his greatest success in the blaxpoitation genre. There were no shortage of roles for Fred Williamson to take on as he became well known to audiences as one of the baddest dudes on the silver screen. Even today at 80 years old Williamson is still going strong and is nothing short of a cult film icon.
MASH (1970): After a few TV guest spots, Williamson broke out in Hollywood in the role of Dr. Oliver “Spearchucker” Jones in Robert Altman’s Korean War classic MASH. This may have been his first big role, but Fred Williamson would have to learn fast as he shared the screen with the likes of: Donald Sutherland, Tom Skerritt, Sally Kellerman, Robert Duvall, and a number of other talented actors. Considering his background as a football player it must have been easy for the new actor to dive into the role of an athlete turned accomplished neurosurgeon. His presence at the 4077th MASH, brought out the racial prejudices of the character “Duke” Forrest. Though as the movie unfolded these two men would find a common interest in football and slowly but surely the two would build a close friendship.
Hammer (1972): With blaxpoitation becoming big business with the release of Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssssss Song and well as Shaft the year before, Fred Williamson was positioned to be the next star of this burgeoning genre with portrayal of BJ Hammer. Given that Williamson was known as “the Hammer” he was the perfect fit as the dock worker turned boxer. With the help of a manager with mob connections, BJ Hammer begins to work his way up winning fights along the way. Seeing this as a way to finally make something for himself, Hammer is oblivious to the fact that mob boss Big Sid, will eventually want something in return for their help. When he refuses to throw a fight for them, they kidnap his girlfriend forcing Hammer to take the fight to them. Hammer is often heralded as one of the greatest films of the blaxpoitation genre due to it’s action and social commentary along with Williamson terrific performance.
Black Caesar (1973): Cult favorite director Larry Cohen had the idea to take the traditional gangster film and contemporize it for a modern audience (it even made my list of the Greatest Gangster Movies HERE). The Harlem-born Tommy Gibbs grew up in a life of crime and eventually finds himself working for the Italian mafia. This leads to his rise to the top of Harlem’s black crime syndicate, though inevitably he wants more. He leads his crew in a war against the mafia, but this only leads to his downfall as he alienates those close to him. In the end a broken Tommy Gibbs finds himself back in Harlem where a gang of young boys ambush him thus completing his utter defeat.
Hell up in Harlem (1973): Williamson reteamed with Cohen for the Black Caesar follow-up later that year. Cohen, however admitted he scripted this film on the fly, leading a tonally uneven but fun final film. Altering the ending of Black Casesar, Tommy Gibbs survives the attack in Harlem from the film’s conclusion and recovers from his wounds in a hospital. While he is at his weakest the corrupt District Attorney is looking to put he and his father, Papa Gibbs away so that he can take control of Harlem’s drug trade. Gibbs tries to rebuild his organization with his estranged father by his side. A power struggle between Papa and Gibbs’ loyal right-hand man Zach drives the gangster to Los Angeles. Though at the end of the film it becomes clear he has to sneak back to his home city to settle all of his old scores.
Boss N****r (1975): In 1975 Fred Williamson wrote and produced his own Western to serve as his next vehicle. Directed by fan-favorite filmmaker Jack Arnold, Williamson plays the bounty hunter Boss N****r who with his partner Amos stumble rescue a woman named Clara Mae from a posse of wanted fugitives. They travel to nearby San Miguel, where they set up a new life and Boss is able to strong arm his way into becoming sheriff and enforcing his “Black Laws” in town. This puts him at odds with the outlaw Jed Clayton who goes to war against Boss and Amos. It all ends in a violent shoot-out where Boss kills Jed, but is left mortally wounded. He convinces Amos to take him away so that he has the dignity of dying away from this “white folks’ town”.
Adios Amigo (1976): Williamson’s return to the Wild West took a more comedic turn as the actor also stepped into the director’s chair. Apparently dejected after being turned down for the lead role in the Mel Brooks classic Blazing Saddles, Williamson wanted to do what he believed would be a more serious and realistic Western/comedy hybrid. Joining him were fellow iconic entertainers Richard Pryor and James Brown. He and Pryor starred as a duo of bandits, where Williamson was the straight man and Pryor was the smooth-talking funny man. While both Fred Williamson and Richard Pryor were disappointed in the final product, Adios Amigos did gain positive reviews from many noteworthy critics and built a bit of a cult following.
The Inglorious Bastards (1978): A classic of the Spaghetti War films which takes a healthy dose of inspiration from the classic the Dirty Dozen. Fred Williamson plays Private Fred “Assassin” Canfield, who along with other criminals in the army are led by Lt. Robert Yeager when they are stranded in the French countryside. Their plan to escape the war in neutral Switzerland go to hell when they run afoul of the Nazis and a misunderstanding forces Yeager and his rowdy crew forced into a secret mission by the army. These Inglorious Bastards have to blow up a train carrying powerful Nazi rockets, and of course nothing goes to plan forcing the crew to resort to their wits and inner-heroism to complete the job. In the end Fred is one of the few survivors of the mission.
From Dusk ‘til Dawn (1996): The movie I am sure most contemporary audiences recognize this icon for. On the run from the police, fugitives Seth and Richie Gecko find themselves south of the border in a bar called the T***y Twister. In the bar they find a whole crew of thugs and miscreants played by various cult film favorites, including Fred Williamson as the Vietnam vet Frost. When it is revealed the staff of this fine establishment are actually vampires who have lured them all into a trap, Frost joins with the others to fight the undead monsters. Though he puts up a solid fight, he too joins their vampiric ranks. While his physique truly makes him an imposing threat as a vampire he is ultimately defeated.